MEDIA freedom in Bangladesh has progressively declined and the country’s position in the World Press Freedom Index 2021 is indicative of the constraining political environment for journalists and media professionals. The index prepared by the Reporters sans frontières and released on Tuesday shows that Bangladesh has slipped one notch this year and ranked in the 152nd position among the 180 countries surveyed. The Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations in 2018 also made a similar observation on the shrinking media freedom in Bangladesh and recommended that the government should take steps to ensure the freedom of press and to protect journalists. The government, as it seems, has not made any effort to improve on the situation. Of all the cases filed under the Digital Security Act in 2020, 16 per cent were filed against journalists. In a similar case filed by Khulna’s mayor, also president of the Khulna unit Awami League, a 64-year-old journalist was sent to jail on Wednesday. The legal harassment of journalists has become commonplace and created a fearful situation where public interest journalism has become a risky affair.
The legal harassment of and violence against journalists are not the only impeding factors. The declining labour standards in media and a constant violation of the labour law also influenced the growth of journalism as a profession. There persists a general disregard for the health and economic well-being of the community which became more evident during the Covid outbreak. The Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign ranks Bangladesh in the 6th position in Covid-related death of journalists. Many civil society organisations note that journalists have experienced significant pay cut, the suspension of festival allowances and sudden job termination during the Covid times. As professional associations of journalists are deeply politicised and co-opted by the ruling party, they play little to no role in safeguarding the rights of journalists. In 2018, the cabinet approved a draft law for journalists, employees and technicians of all media, but it was never made into a law. It is, therefore, not surprising that legal harassment, attacks on journalists or labour rights violation continues to remain unaddressed, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity for media professionals.
Reporters sans frontières rightly points that public interest journalism has never been more important than today when the global economy reels from the shock of Covid-19 and it reminds governments of ensuring unhindered production and distribution of good journalism. The government must, therefore, immediately stop the application of the Digital Security Act to stop journalistic work and ensure judicious investigation of all cases of violence against journalists. The journalist community at large must also work against the growing journalistic trend that works rather as the mouthpiece of the ruling party than speaking of their own rights or the growth of journalism.
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